Want to know former US president Bill Clinton’s thoughts on the Watergate scandal? The 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Monica Lewinsky? There’s no need to read all 957 pages of his autobiography, My Life. Simply flick to the back of the book and check the index for the page number.
An index is a list of all the names, subjects and ideas in a piece of written work, designed to help readers quickly find where they are discussed in the text. Usually found at the end of the text, an index doesn’t just list the content (that’s what a table of contents is for), it analyses it.
Where are indexes used?
In addition to back-of-the-book indexes found in non-fiction books and technical reports, indexes are also used to make other sources of information – including journal articles, maps and atlases, art collections, online databases and websites – easier to navigate. Where books are published online, in PDF or e-book format, indexes link directly to points in the text.
Indexes are a common inclusion in many annual reports and are mandatory for annual reports produced by Australian Government departments, executive agencies and other non-corporate Commonwealth agencies.
What makes a good index?
An index provides a map to a report’s content. It does this through identifying key themes and ideas, grouping similar concepts, cross-referencing information and using clear formatting. A good index will:
- be arranged in alphabetical order
- include accurate page references that lead to useful information on a topic
- avoid listing every use of a word or phrase
- be consistent across similar topics
- use sub-categories to break up long blocks of page numbers
- use italics for publications and Acts
- cross-reference information to point to other headings of interest or preferred terms.
For example, a back-of-the-book index might read:
sales, sales process, 147, 149, 158, see also strategy (directs the reader to a related term)
scripts, 56–59 (grouping term)
podcasts, 56–57 (sub-term)
search engine optimisation, 100, 156
Security Analysis (David Dodd and Benjamin Graham), 89–90 (reference to a book)
spelling, see proofreading (directs the reader to the word or phrase used in the text)
While software is available to help indexers arrange, format and edit entries, indexers will also use their judgement when deciding what to put into an index, what to leave out and how to organise it.
Don’t forget to add a table of contents
A good index may be the difference between people referring to a report regularly and it gathering dust on the bookshelf. If you don’t have an index, it’s important to at least have a good table of contents.
Located at the front of a report, a table of contents allows readers to easily see what the report is about and how sections of the text are arranged, in the order they appear.
A good table of contents will include headings, outlining the main sections or themes; sub-headings that indicate what each section of copy is about; and the page numbers they appear on. Additional content such as tables and boxes can also be added.
Want to make your report as easy to navigate as possible? Bookend it with a table of contents and an index – readers will have no excuse for not being able to find the information they’re after.